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June 4, 2013
Chasing After the Wind: Win Probability Added, Art Shamsky, and the Oppressive Weirdness of Baseball
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Michael Baumann is a writer for Grantland's Triangle Blog and Crashburn Alley of ESPN's SweetSpot Network. You can find him on Twitter at @mj_baumann.
I grew up playing a computerized version of APBA Baseball for Windows 3.1. It offered a choice of teams (various World Series contestants from 1905 to 1982) and ballparks (Yankee Stadium, Forbes Field, and Wrigley Field), by which I mean you could have differently-named boxes representing players placed over different background drawings of stadia.
But for a seven-year-old, it was immensely informative. It’s where I learned all sorts of trivia about baseball history, from how insanely stacked a lineup the 1953 Dodgers had to how fast Willie Wilson was to how slow Ernie Lombardi was. Thanks to that game, I’m aware of Hurricane Hazle’s great fluky 1957 season and how deep the 1906 Cubs were even when you took away Three Finger Brown and that double play combination.
My favorite team to play with was the 1969 Mets. I used them because the overwhelming majority of the stories my dad told about baseball from his own youth involved, as you might expect, the best moments of the team he followed growing up. Because of those stories, I felt comfortable, even as a child, managing the Miracle Mets. I also feel like I’ve completely overrated Tommie Agee as a player in my mind as a result. Like, maybe I shouldn’t have extrapolated a Hall of Fame career for him in my head, no matter what my dad told me about the catch he made against the Orioles.
But that’s another story.
On that team was a man named Art Shamsky, which sounds like the name an anti-Semite would come up with if he were rewriting The Merchant of Venice to be set in 1950s Brooklyn. Shamsky had an eight-year career as a backup outfielder/first baseman for four teams in the 1960s. He platooned in right field with Ron Swoboda that year, and was okay, but mostly forgettable.
Baseball-Reference lists no related articles on Shamsky’s player page. Nor does FanGraphs. A quick perusal of ESPN’s archives returns only his player page and an article from 2007 about him managing in Israel. The annals of Baseball Prospectus itself reveal three mentions of Shamsky: two cheap throwaway jokes (one from Nate Silver in 2005 and one from Jay Jaffe in 2007), and a serious article by Jason Wojciechowski that overlaps with the subject matter of this post.
Win probability added is one of those stats that doesn’t have tremendous macro-level value, but it’s a fun way to look at a single game. In that spirit, here’s the list of every single-game WPA of 1.000 or greater since 1916. There are 74 such games. If you’re going to make a list of prime qualifications for a big single-game WPA total, you might come up with the following:
And the list, broadly, bears those qualifications out. Among the players who have posted a WPA greater than or equal to 1.000: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, George Brett, Paul Molitor, Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Joey Votto, Josh Hamilton, Jose Bautista, Paul Molitor, Harmon Killebrew…the guys you’d expect. Sure, Cody Ross and Brandon Inge are on the list, but no club has a perfect bouncer. To the other qualifications, 70 of the 74 players started and batted at least five times. Of those 74 performances, 69 came in winning efforts.
So when it comes to light that the guy who, from a standpoint of probability, did more than anyone before or since to help his team win is:
…that’s when Shamsky’s performance on August 12, 1966 stops being laudable and historically interesting and starts being truly bizarre.
So here’s what happened:
1) Shamsky entered the game in the eighth inning as part of a double-switch with the Reds down 7-6. In the bottom off the eighth, Leo Cardenas singled, Jimmie Coker bunted into a fielder's choice (and was pinch-run for) and Shamsky homered over the center field fence to give the Reds an 8-7 lead, putting 0.54 WPA in his back pocket.
2) Don Nottebart gave up a solo home run to Pirates pinch-hitter Jerry Lynch with one out in the ninth inning to tie it, then another to Willie Stargell in the 10th to put the Pirates up by one. Between the two home runs, Nottebart hit for himself and struck out against Elroy Face. The idea of a relief pitcher giving up the game-tying home run and then being allowed to lead off the next inning is mind-boggling to someone born after 1980. Nearly as mind-boggling as the idea of being named Elroy Face. Hilariously, Nottebart managed to surrender game-tying and go-ahead home runs in the ninth and 10th innings and escape the game with only the fourth-worst WPA of any pitcher in the game.
3) Fear not, because with one out in the bottom of the 10th, Shamsky homered to right off Face. Considering his performance overall in this game, one could just as accurately say that Shamsky homered his face right off. Tie ballgame, another 0.47 worth of WPA to Shamsky.
Then Manny Mota pinch hit for Willie Stargell. I was going to go on a rant about how weird that was until I looked up Stargell’s splits from 1966 and discovered that he hit .343/.407/.624 against righties and .169/.244/.338 against lefties that season. So Pirates manager Harry Walker decided to put in Mota, who could actually hit lefties, against the left-handed Billy McCool. A fascinating idea, paying attention to platoon splits when they’re worth 450 points of OPS to your cleanup hitter. Isn’t it, Charlie Manuel?
5) Shamsky hits a two-run home run in the bottom of the 11th to tie the game again. Another 0.49 added to the Reds’ win probability. If you look at the win probability chart for this game, Shamsky is essentially playing Pong against his own pitching staff.
6) Nobody scores in the 12th inning, but McCool is charged with three more runs in the 13th. The Reds go in order in the bottom of the inning and finally capitulate with Shamsky two batters away from the plate.
In summary, Shamsky entered the game in the eighth inning and hit a go-ahead home run and two game-tying home runs in three plate appearances, generating a high enough WPA in the process to win three games on his own, assuming the rest of his teammates were utility-neutral.
Art Shamsky hit 21 home runs in 1966, a career high. Fourteen percent of them came after the eighth inning of this one game.
If you’re the kind of person who believes in microcosms and looks for symbolism in real-world events, you can make some statement about how Pagliaroni’s involvement in Shamsky’s breaking of his record indicates something interconnectedness of mankind. It says something about judging players by the performance of their teams when a context-dependent stat like WPA that literally measures “what you did to help your team win” spits out its highest number for a player whose team lost the game in question. You can marvel at baseball’s ability to produce extraordinary stories and moments from unexpected places. You can even use Shamsky’s great game as an example of the futility of all human endeavors—no matter how many times you tie it up in extra innings, your bullpen will yak away the game and you’ll be left with nothing.
Shamsky’s performance recalls the lament of King Solomon in Ecclesiastes 2:11. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
In other words, thanks for nothing, Billy McCool.
Or you can look at a game like this, a game that might as well have been written by Boris Pasternak and made possible by a generous donation from the I’m My Own Grandpa Foundation and Viewers Like You, and just pass. Just close the page on Retrosheet, turn off your computer, and toss your hands in the air.
Sometimes, trying to make sense of something this strange is more trouble than it’s worth.